"Long before it's in the papers"
January 18, 2016


Review finds little evidence behind speed reading claims

Jan. 18, 2016
Courtesy of the As­socia­t­ion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence
and World Science staff

Learn­ing to speed read seems like an ob­vi­ous strat­e­gy for mak­ing quick work of all the e­mails, re­ports, and oth­er pieces of text we en­coun­ter eve­ry day. But a new re­port says the claims put forth by many speed read­ing pro­grams and tools are probably too good to be true. 

Ex­am­in­ing dec­ades’ worth of re­search, psy­chol­o­gists said they found lit­tle ev­i­dence to sup­port speed read­ing as a short­cut to un­der­stand­ing and re­mem­ber­ing lots of text quick­ly.

“Speed read­ing train­ing cours­es have been around for dec­ades, and there has been a re­cent surge in the num­ber of speed read­ing tech­nolo­gies that have been in­tro­duced to the con­sum­er mar­ket,” said Eliz­a­beth Schot­ter, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Un­ivers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Die­go and one of the au­thors of the re­port.

“We wanted to take a close look at the sci­ence” be­hind these.

The re­port, pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence in the Pub­lic In­ter­est, a jour­nal of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based As­socia­t­ion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, in­di­cates that there are no mag­ic short­cuts when it comes to read­ing.

“There is a trade-off be­tween speed and ac­cu­ra­cy — as read­ers spend less time on the ma­te­ri­al, they nec­es­sarily will have a poorer un­der­stand­ing of it,” said Schot­ter.

Read­ing is a com­plex dance among var­i­ous vis­u­al and men­tal pro­cesses, she ex­plained, and re­search shows that skilled read­ers al­ready read quick­ly, av­er­ag­ing 200 to 400 words per min­ute. 

Some speed read­ing tech­nolo­gies claim to of­fer an ad­di­tion­al boost by elim­i­nat­ing the need to make eye move­ments by pre­sent­ing words rap­idly in the cen­ter of a com­put­er screen or mo­bile de­vice, with each new word re­plac­ing the pre­vi­ous word. The prob­lem, Schot­ter and col­leagues found, is that eye move­ments ac­count for at most 10 per­cent of the over­all time we spend read­ing—and elim­i­nat­ing the abil­ity to go back and re­read pre­vi­ous text tends to hurt over­all com­pre­hen­sion.

The big­gest ob­sta­cle, sci­ence shows, is­n’t our vi­sion but rath­er our abil­ity to rec­og­nize words and pro­cess how they com­bine to make mean­ing­ful sen­tences, the au­thors said.

“So-called so­lu­tions that em­pha­size speed­ing up the in­put with­out mak­ing the lan­guage eas­i­er to un­der­stand will have lim­it­ed ef­fi­ca­cy,” said Schot­ter.

While some may claim pro­di­gious speed read­ing skills, these claims typ­ic­ally don’t hold up when put to the test, the re­search­ers said. In­ves­ti­ga­t­ions show these in­di­vid­u­als gen­er­ally al­ready know a lot about the top­ic or con­tent of what they have sup­posedly speed-read. With­out such knowl­edge, they of­ten don’t re­mem­ber much of what they’ve read and can’t an­swer sub­stan­ti­ve ques­tions about the text.

This does­n’t mean we’re nec­es­sarily stuck read­ing at the same speed all the time, the sci­en­tists not­ed. Re­search does show that ef­fec­tive skim­ming – pri­or­i­tizing more in­form­a­tive parts of a text while gloss­ing over oth­ers — can be ef­fec­tive when we’re only in­ter­est­ed in get­ting the gist of it.

In fact, da­ta sug­gest that the most ef­fec­tive “speed read­ers” are ac­tu­ally ef­fec­tive skim­mers who al­ready are fa­mil­iar with the top­ic at hand and are thus able to pick out key points quick­ly.

The one thing that can help boost over­all read­ing abil­ity, sci­ence shows, is prac­tic­ing read­ing for com­pre­hen­sion. Great­er ex­po­sure to writ­ing in all its dif­fer­ent forms pro­vides us with a larg­er and richer vo­cab­u­lary, as well as the con­tex­tu­al expe­rience that can help us an­ti­cipate up­com­ing words and make in­fer­ences re­gard­ing the mean­ing of words or phrases we don’t im­me­di­ately rec­og­nize.

Ul­ti­mate­ly, there is no one abil­ity or strat­e­gy that will ena­ble us to zip through a nov­el in one sit­ting or pro­cess an in­box full of e­mails over the course of a lunch break, the au­thors said.

“There’s no quick fix,” said Schot­ter. “We urge peo­ple to main­tain a healthy dose of skep­ti­cism and ask for sup­porting sci­en­tif­ic ev­i­dence when some­one pro­poses a speed read­ing meth­od that will dou­ble or tri­ple their read­ing speed with­out sac­ri­fic­ing a com­plete un­der­stand­ing.”

The re­port and ac­com­pa­nying com­men­tary are avail­a­ble to the pub­lic on­line.

* * *

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Learning to speed read seems like an obvious strategy for making quick work of all the emails, reports, and other pieces of text we encounter every day. But a new report said the claims put forth by many speed reading programs and tools are probably too good to be true. Examining decades’ worth of research, psychologists said they found little evidence to support speed reading as a shortcut to understanding and remembering lots of text quickly. “Speed reading training courses have been around for decades, and there has been a recent surge in the number of speed reading technologies that have been introduced to the consumer market,” said Elizabeth Schotter, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego and one of the authors of the report. “We wanted to take a close look at the science behind reading to help people make informed decisions” on the topic. The report, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicates that there are no magic shortcuts when it comes to reading more quickly while still fully understanding what we’ve read. “The available scientific evidence demonstrates that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy — as readers spend less time on the material, they necessarily will have a poorer understanding of it,” said Schotter. Reading is a complex dance among various visual and mental processes, she explained, and research shows that skilled readers already read quickly, averaging 200 to 400 words per minute. Some speed reading technologies claim to offer an additional boost by eliminating the need to make eye movements by presenting words rapidly in the center of a computer screen or mobile device, with each new word replacing the previous word. The problem, Schotter and colleagues found, is that eye movements account for at most 10% of the overall time we spend reading, and eliminating the ability to go back and reread previous text tends to worsen overall comprehension. The biggest obstacle, science shows, isn’t our vision but rather our ability to recognize words and process how they combine to make meaningful sentences, the authors said. “So-called solutions that emphasize speeding up the input without making the language easier to understand will have limited efficacy,” said Schotter. While some may claim prodigious speed reading skills, these claims typically don’t hold up when put to the test, the researchers said. Investigations show these individuals generally already know a lot about the topic or content of what they have supposedly speed-read. Without such knowledge, they often don’t remember much of what they’ve read and can’t answer substantive questions about the text. This doesn’t mean we’re necessarily stuck reading at the same speed all the time, the scientists noted. Research does show that effective skimming – prioritizing more informative parts of a text while glossing over others — can be effective when we’re only interested in getting the gist of what we’re reading, instead of a deeper, more comprehensive understanding. In fact, data suggest that the most effective “speed readers” are actually effective skimmers who already have considerable familiarity with the topic at hand and are thus able to pick out key points quickly. The one thing that can help boost overall reading ability, science shows, is practicing reading for comprehension. Greater exposure to writing in all its different forms provides us with a larger and richer vocabulary, as well as the contextual experience that can help us anticipate upcoming words and make inferences regarding the meaning of words or phrases we don’t immediately recognize. Ultimately, there is no one ability or strategy that will enable us to zip through a novel in one sitting or process an inbox full of emails over the course of a lunch break, the authors said. “There’s no quick fix,” said Schotter. “We urge people to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism and ask for supporting scientific evidence when someone proposes a speed reading method that will double or triple their reading speed without sacrificing a complete understanding.” The report and accompanying commentary are available to the public online.